Margaret Olivia Sage Scholar Greg Duncan Discusses His Pioneering Research on Early Childhood Development

February 7, 2022

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Greg Duncan (University of California, Irvine), an RSF Margaret Olivia Sage Scholar, is one of the principle investigators for the pioneering research project, Baby’s First Years (BFY), the first causal study in the United States to examine the impact of poverty reduction on early childhood development. The study’s core research questions are: Does a monthly, unconditional cash gift (1) support young children’s healthy development and brain functioning? and (2) improve family functioning and better enable parents to care for their children? The principal investigators on the interdisciplinary team also include RSF grantee Kimberly Noble (Columbia University), RSF grantee Katherine Magnuson (University of Wisconsin, Madison), Nathan Fox (University of Maryland, College Park), a member of RSF’s completed Biology and Social Science Working Group, Lisa A. Gennetian (Duke University), former RSF trustee Hirokazu Yoshikawa (New York University), and Sarah Halpern-Meekin (University of Wisconsin, Madison).

The Baby’s First Years project follows 1,000 mothers and their young children living below the poverty line in New York City, New Orleans, the Twin Cities, and the Omaha metropolitan area. Mothers were recruited for the study at birth hospitals. After a baseline interview, they were randomly selected to receive an unrestricted cash gift of either $333 per month ($4,000 annually) or $20 per month ($240 annually) for 52 months. Quantitative data collection are occurring at the children’s first, second, third, and fourth birthday marks. In-depth qualitative interviews will be conducted with a random sample of 80 mothers from two of the sites at ages 10, 19, 27, and 40 months.

Greg Duncan is Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of California, Irvine. He was previously a Margaret Olivia Sage scholar at the foundation in fall 2019. Additionally, he was a visiting scholar at RSF during both the 2016-2017 and 2004-2005 academic years. He is co-editor of the RSF books, Whither Opportunity? (2011), For Better and for Worse (2002), Neighborhood PovertyVolume 1 and  Volume 2 (2000), Consequences of Growing Up Poor (1999), and is co-author of the RSF book Higher Ground (2007). In 2018 he and his coauthors published a blueprint for a national child allowance in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences. He is also the recipient of multiple grants from the foundation.

In a new interview with the foundation, Duncan discusses the Baby’s First Years study. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Baby’s First Years is the first randomized controlled study in the US examining the impact of poverty reduction on early childhood development. Can you discuss why is it important for the study to be a randomized controlled study and what are the policy implications if it is found that poverty reduction supports child development?

It’s controversial to say that merely reducing poverty will help kids. Whenever someone claims that the evidence shows us that is the case, someone else will say, “That’s a correlational study” or “It’s not poverty, it’s family structure. It’s not poverty, it’s culture.” “It’s not poverty,” you name it. Unless it’s a random control trial, you don’t really have strong evidence on that question. The fundamental purpose of Baby’s First Years is to generate strong evidence and, ideally, help inform policy debates over child poverty policies. Maybe politics are such that people don’t pay attention to evidence anymore, but to the extent that skeptical people do, it’s really random assignment experiments that they pay attention to. As for the policy implications, we haven’t followed the children for enough time yet to gather a planned battery laboratory assessments of child well-being. Our cash gift intervention may or may not affect these measures. If they do, then our research will have important policy implication, and if they don’t, then we won’t. You can think of many different ways of helping low-income families with kids, like direct service programs, early education, and home visiting. Our experiment is designed to shed light on the impacts of more general income support programs.

Q. Some critics argue against the government providing unconditional cash payments. One argument is that such payments might disincentivize recipients from working. Can you explain why it is important to have the cash payments be unconditional and unrestricted for both the study and any policy that may be informed by the study?

We have a lot of conditional policies, like SNAP for example, where benefits can only be used for food. We have a housing voucher program for which benefits are spent on rent. The counterargument to these conditional policies is that mothers know best how to spend money because they are in such heterogeneous circumstances with respect to what they need, with respect what they earn, and what sort of support they receive from extended family members and other programs. It’s the economist view that if you can provide the basic resources then families will figure out the best way to use them to accomplish their goals. Some fear that recipients will spend the money on drugs, some fear they will be encouraged to drop out of the labor market, and those are possibilities. In our study, we’re asking questions that will enable us to assess to what extent those things are true. We ask questions about cigarette use, alcohol use, opioid use, and we ask questions about employment. You can’t dismiss these worries out of hand, but at the same time, the debate over these transfer programs has really been focused exclusively on the behavior of the mother: Is she going to work less? Is she going to waste the money? The debate should be as much focused on whether it’s good for children as it is on whether it’s bad for mothers in terms of their behavior. If you look at the debate over welfare reform in the 1990s and the debate over the Child Tax Credit (CTC) now, nobody’s talking about child well-being. It’s all about maternal work and, sotto voce, all the bad things mother is going to do when she gets the money. We’re hoping that once we get good solid evidence, that we can start reorienting the discussion to have as much of a focus on child well-being as on maternal behavior.

Q. The study includes qualitative, semi-structured interviews. How will they enhance the findings of the quantitative data? 

I’ve been involved in a number of mixed-method studies, one of which was the subject of my Russell Sage book Higher Ground. It involved an employment support program in Milwaukee. It was a random assignment experiment with a child well-being focus, but at the same time collected data from an embedded a qualitative study. You learn so much from actually sitting down and talking to mothers for an hour and a half in an open-ended conversation; there are topics you want to cover but you want to do it in a more natural way that enables you to really go in depth. We recently received a grant from Russell Sage to help with qualitative analysis of our BYF project, so that work is ongoing. As we start to generate impact results from the quantitative experimental analysis, we are talking with Sarah Halpern-Meekin, who is directing the qualitative study, to see whether what the numbers tell us resonates with what she’s finding when she actually talks to the mothers. One example is that mothers seem to be using the money for child-related things more than for other family priorities. You might expect that this kind of general, unconditional income support would be used to improve the overall financial situation of the family, and to some extent, that’s true, but it is more the case that mothers seems to think of this as money for their child and that comes through very clearly in the qualitative study. We hear stories where mothers talk about being able to buy things for their child that enables her family to be “normal” consumers. There was one story about a mother being able to buy what her child was reaching for from a shopping cart in Toys “R” Us. Another mother talked about being able to go to McDonald’s. The kind of things that middle-class or working-class Americans do all the time are important for low-income families as well.

Q. The research team hypothesizes that two main pathways, an investment pathway and a stress pathway, mediate the effects of poverty on child development. Can you expand on what those pathways are and how they mediate those effects?

Analysis is still ongoing, so we don’t know how or if they mediate the effects of poverty on child development. But it was a prominent theoretical orientation in our book, Consequences of Growing Up Poor. The investment pathway is one that comes naturally to economists, and posits that child well-being is going to be enhanced by both the money and the time that extra resources might be able to provide. So, it’s being able to buy a computer or afford center-based childcare rather than relying on relatives. The stress pathway comes from developmental psychology. It holds that constrained economic circumstances creates stress that carries over to maternal health and in turn affects the quality of the parent-child interactions. So, stress may lead to harsher parenting, which in turn has a negative effect on child well-being. Our questionnaires are gathering many measures on those two pathways.

Q. This year, the American Rescue Plan increased CTC benefits. There are thoughts that this may negatively impact the Baby’s First Years Study. Are there any ways that it can be beneficial for the BFY study?

From the beginning of the study, we have been providing a stable monthly income supplement to families in our study. At $333, it wasn’t a huge amount, but it was paid month after month. Families could plan on it lasting at least three years, which could well help stabilize family finances. The expanded Child Tax Credit in the American Rescue Plan and possibly Build Back Better didn’t start until 18 months into our study. These CTC payments amount to $3,000 or $3,600 per child, which is exactly the amount that was specified in a Russell Sage article in 2018. We laid out a proposal for a child allowance, and it is pretty much what was built into the American Rescue Plan. In addition, there was a National Academy Report on reducing child poverty that I chaired and the CTC was one of the options we presented. Getting back to the question – BFY is giving $4,000 per year for the whole family, regardless of the number of children. Prior to the American Rescue Plan, our payments produced a $313 difference per month ($333 minus $20) between our high- and low-cash gift groups, which had the potential to provide stability for our families. With the American Rescue Plan and maybe with Build Back Better, the vast majority of low-income families in our study can get considerably higher payments. Some could get $6,000, others could get $9,000 in a year, also paid monthly.

Prior to the American Rescue Plan, our families had an average annual income of about $20,000 and our payments were on top of that. An expanded CTC will probably increase to an average of about $26,000 and quite a bit of that will be stable monthly income. Our payments are added on top of that, so you could wonder whether our payments will make as much of a difference as before. Not in terms of how well the families are doing – they are clearly doing better. But you could worry about our “treatment” in terms of its generalizability. It may be that there’s less of an effect of that difference on top of the CTC expansion than there was before. We’ll see, because it’s very uncertain whether an expanded CTC will become law. But if our study suffers from lack of generalizability because an expanded CTC program is put in place, then I will join those thankful that child poverty in this country has been cut in half.



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